Research Programs: Fellowships for College Teachers and Independent Scholars

Period of Performance

9/1/2004 - 8/31/2005

Funding Totals

$40,000.00 (approved)
$40,000.00 (awarded)

The Color Line: A History of Race, the Law, and American Lives

FAIN: FB-50300-04

Daniel J. Sharfstein
Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN 37203-2416)

This project examines cases heard in Southern state courts between 1890 and 1930 in which judges and juries had to determine whether someone was white or black. At the start of legal segregation in the 1890s, most Southern states drew the color line with a variety of fractional rules--people with one-fourth, one-eighth or one-sixteenth "Negro blood" were legally black. By the 1920s, however, the "one-drop rule" prevailed--anyone with any African ancestry was black. The redrawing of the color line accompanied the transformation of the post-Civil War South into a segregated society devoted to maintaining absolute racial purity. Yet despite the hyperbolic fears of racial mixing that dominated the era, Southern state courts often showed great reluctance to alter the legal status of ostensibly white people. Courts made it relatively easy for people who looked white to sue if their racial backgrounds were questioned, and judges interpreted statutes and fashioned common-law rules in ways that often made it difficult to prove that someone who was ostensibly white was legally black. The courts' reluctance, I argue, was related to the evidence revealed in these cases that many people across the South who were socially accepted as white had African ancestry. Witnesses in these "color-line cases" unselfconsciously described how they worked, prayed with and married people who were rumored or known to have mixed ancestry. Courts recognized that unless they trod softly near the color line, their decisions risked destabilizing white communities. This history of the law and politics of the color line--and the lives lived in its shadow--is an untold story of racial ambiguity and acceptance that illuminates how for the past century Americans have defined themselves and ordered their worlds.

Media Coverage

Tracing Lives of Three 'White' Families and Their Black Forebears (Review)
Author(s): Dan Cryer
Publication: Boston Globe
Date: 2/20/2011
Abstract: “[A] spellbinding chronicle of racial passing in America . . . Sharfstein may be a law professor, at Vanderbilt, but he approaches his subject with a storyteller’s verve and a novelist’s gift for the telling detail. . . Sharfstein’s you-are-there approach to history produces dozens of vivid set pieces — Wall rescuing an escaped slave from slave catchers; Gideon Gibson taunting the commander of South Carolina’s militia; Senator Gibson delighting in owning the mansion once occupied by President Lincoln’s secretary of war. In every case, the author clarifies the context that makes each family’s progression from black to white unique . . . The Invisible Line is not only a work of serious scholarship based on exhaustive archival research but an immensely satisfying read.’’

The Invisible Line (Review)
Author(s): Wilbert Rideau
Publication: Financial Times
Date: 2/21/2011
Abstract: “In this meticulously researched history, Sharfstein’s ace-in-the-hole is his ability to recreate dramatic events and build flesh-and-blood characters from courthouse records, family letters, or forgotten contemporaneous accounts. He sets out to change the way we think about race, and he succeeds brilliantly in showing us that before politics began hardening colour lines in the run-up to the civil war, pragmatism often trumped prejudice. . . [F]or me, what makes this book a must-read are Sharfstein’s revelations about antebellum America.”

Shades of White (Review)
Author(s): Raymond Arsenault
Publication: New York Times
Date: 2/27/2011
Abstract: “In an illuminating and aptly titled book, The Invisible Line, Daniel J. Sharfstein demonstrates that African-Americans of mixed ancestry have been crossing the boundaries of color and racial identity since the early colonial era. An associate professor of law at Vanderbilt University and an author with a literary flair, Sharfstein documents this persistent racial fluidity by painstakingly reconstructing the history of three families. In a dizzying array of alternating chapters, he presents the personal and racial stories of the Gibsons, the Spencers and the Walls. The result is an astonishingly detailed rendering of the variety and complexity of racial experience in an evolving national culture moving from slavery to segregation to civil rights.’’

Briefly Noted (Review)
Publication: New Yorker
Date: 3/7/2011
Abstract: "[A]n important reconsideration of the porousness of racial categories . . . and also a powerful evocation of the peril and insecurity that blacks faced both before and after the Civil War."

'The Invisible Line,' by Daniel J. Sharfstein (Review)
Author(s): Bruce Watson
Publication: San Francisco Chronicle
Date: 2/27/2011
Abstract: "Despite an African American president and the annual Black History Month, racial amnesia remains widespread. Everyone knows when slavery ended, but few know how Slavery Lite continued under the oppressive sharecropper system. The persistence of such amnesia long after the triumphs of the civil rights movement makes 'The Invisible Line' must reading. "With dogged research, lawyer and journalist Daniel J. Sharfstein has stitched together the stories of three families toeing America's racial trip wire across several generations. Woven into a novelistic narrative, 'The Invisible Line' presents a primer on the hypocrisies that confronted everyday Americans from the Revolution through to the 1960s."

Un-Reconstructed (Review)
Author(s): Nathan Greenfield
Publication: Times Literary Supplement
Date: 10/28/2011
Abstract: "Daniel J. Sharfstein['s] extraordinary, engaging book, 'The Invisible Line,' . . . shows that the colour line was at times surprisingly permeable."

Escape Into Whiteness (Review)
Author(s): Brent Staples
Publication: New York Review of Books
Date: 11/24/2011
Abstract: "Daniel Sharfstein, an associate professor of law at Vanderbilt, brings . . . late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Negro society vividly to life in his authoritative and elegantly written 'The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White.'"

Associated Products

The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White (Book)
Title: The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White
Author: Daniel J. Sharfstein
Abstract: "The Invisible Line" is a multigenerational history of three families of color who assimilated into white communities at different points in American history. The Gibsons were wealthy landowners in the South Carolina backcountry who became white in the 1760s, ascending to the heights of the Southern elite and ultimately to the U.S. Senate. The Spencers were hardscrabble farmers in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, joining an isolated Appalachian community in the 1840s and for the better part of a century hovering on the line between white and black. The Walls were fixtures of the rising black middle class in post-Civil War Washington, D.C., only to give up everything they had fought for to become white at the dawn of the twentieth century. Together, their interwoven and intersecting stories uncover a forgotten America in which the rules of race were something to be believed but not necessarily obeyed. Defining their identities first as people of color and later as whites, these families provide a lens for understanding how people thought about and experienced race and how these ideas and experiences evolved -- how the very meaning of black and white changed -- over time.
Year: 2011
Primary URL:,,9781594202827,00.html
Secondary URL:
Publisher: Penguin Press
Type: Single author monograph
ISBN: 9781594202827


J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize
Date: 5/1/2012
Organization: Columbia Journalism School & Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University
Abstract: Established in 1998, the prizes recognize excellence in nonfiction that exemplify the literary grace and commitment to serious research and social concern that characterized the work of the awards’ Pulitzer Prize-winning namesake, J. Anthony Lukas, who died in 1997. The judges said of “The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White” (Penguin Press) by Daniel J. Sharfstein, an associate professor of law at Vanderbilt University: “The book makes real the fact that, not so long ago, American citizens were forced into hiding their lineage and identity just to live free in this democracy, the perils and sense of loss, no matter which road they chose, and the price being paid even to this day by their descendents, and by extension, all of us.” Judges for the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize were Jefferson Cowie, Ellen Fitzpatrick, Jeffrey Frank, and Isabel Wilkerson.

James Willard Hurst Prize
Date: 6/6/2012
Organization: Law and Society Association
Abstract: The Hurst prize is given annually (biennially prior to 2002) by the Law and Society Association for the best work (in English) in sociolegal history published in the previous year. In the spirit of Willard Hurst's own work, the field of sociolegal history is broadly defined to include the history of interrelationships between law and social, economic, and political change; the history of functions and impact of legal agencies, legislative and administrative as well as judicial; the social history of the legal profession; and similar topics. The Association seeks studies in legal history that explore the relationship between law and society or illuminate the use, function, and cultural meaning of law and society. "By meticulously tracing generations of Americans for more than 150 years, Sharfstein stunningly documents the fluid nature of racial identity in the United States since the Civil War,” wrote the Prize Committee, which included Vicky Saker-Woeste of American Bar Found

Crossing the Color Line: Racial Migration and the One-Drop Rule, 1600-1860 (Article)
Title: Crossing the Color Line: Racial Migration and the One-Drop Rule, 1600-1860
Author: Daniel J. Sharfstein
Abstract: Scholars describe the one-drop rule - the idea that any African ancestry makes a person black - as the American regime of race. While accounts of when the rule emerged vary widely, ranging from the 1660s to the 1920s, most legal scholars have assumed that once established, the rule created a bright line that people were bound to follow. This Article reconstructs the one-drop rule's meaning and purpose from 1600 to 1860, setting it within the context of racial migration, the continual process by which people of African descent assimilated into white communities. While ideologies of blood-borne racial difference predate Jamestown, the rhetoric of purity was always undermined by the realities of mixture. Cases such as Hudgins v. Wright and State v. Cantey simultaneously strengthened and undermined the color line, expressing confidence in the permanence of racial difference while allowing people of color to become white. Instead of simply widening the racial divide, restrictions on the liberty and livelihoods of African Americans pushed many into whiteness. As more people became vulnerable to reclassification, courts acted to preserve social stability in Southern communities, shielding them from the insecurity that an insistence on racial purity would engender. The one-drop rule's transformation from ideological current to legal bright line and presumed social reality is a story not of slavery, but of freedom. In the 1840s and 1850s, the prospect of emancipation hastened the rule's spread as whites attempted to preserve property relations in slavery's absence. In Northern border states such as Ohio, the rule emerged by 1860 as a legal argument and a social attitude. The rule's ostensible opponents - abolitionists - propagated it, deploying it as a rhetorical weapon to symbolize slavery's cruelty and to argue that Northern whites could be enslaved. But the rule's ascent did not make it any more enforceable than it had ever been.
Year: 2007
Primary URL:
Format: Journal
Periodical Title: Minnesota Law Review